Room of the Martyrs

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The Room of the Martyrs at the Jeu de Paume is part of the long history of Nazi looting. Over 600,000 artworks were stolen during World War II. Some mention millions. Each one of these artworks had put up with a perilous journey. Some had been stolen, moved, stored, returned, destroyed or lost forever.

Recounting the track of an artwork is difficult. However, we can count on fervent defenders and resistance fighters who meticulously documented, at the risk of their live, this unprecedented looting. Thereby, writings and photographs give us a chance to catch a glimpse of one of the most surprising room: The Room of the Martyrs at the Jeu de Paume.

Rose Valland in the room of the martyrs, unknown source

Between 1940 and 1944, a unit called, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), was in charge to collect all belongings having a use for the Nazis. Clothes, kitchen utensils and artworks had been requisitioned. Among which we can include paintings and sculptures from the greatest masters: Raphael, Chagall, Monet, Munch, Rodin …

Transfer of artworks in Paris, ERR archives

First off, these artworks were carried to storage spaces. In Paris, the Jeu de Paume was the most important storage regarding volume, over 20,000 looted artworks were exhibited or stored there. A part of this stock was sent to Germany to supply the Führer’s collections.

Spolied artworks storage, ERR archives

All these artworks were kept in captivity in several rooms at the Jeu de Paume, including a very specific one: The Room of the Martyrs. It was small room, isolated from the others by a curtain. Why? It shelters all the “degenerate” artworks, that is to say modern ones, not fitting the Nazi’s artistic ideology. They were considered as being part of a plot orchestrated by the Jews to pervert society. One can find there, artworks from Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Dali, and many others. The artists were not necessarily Jewish, but their proximity with important Jewish art dealers or patrons make them accomplices in the eyes of the Nazis.

Room of the Martyrs, anonymous, 1940. Archive from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Some of these “degenerate” artworks were destroyed, burned down in the Jeu de Paume courtyard. But not every of them. The reason why? Although they were withdrawn from society by the Nazis, these artworks had an important market value. Then, it was possible to exchange those modern artworks for more classical artworks, more to the taste of the Nazis.

Furthermore, the N°2 of the Third Reich, Hermann Goering, was passionate about art, including artworks condemned by Hitler. He went to the Room of the Martyrs more than twenty times, whether to undertake exchanges, whether to supply his personal collection.

Very few documents regarding The Room of the Martyrs got to us. However, it is possible to partly recreate this room thanks to resurfaced photographs. Also, the meticulous notes taken by Rose Valland have been of great help to identify the rightful owners. This famous French member of the resistance had taken notes of arrivals, transfers and owners of these spoiled artworks.

To this day, identifications and restitutions of looted artworks from The Room of the Martyrs have not yet been completed.

Room of the Martyrs, anonymous, 1940. Archive from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Step by step new elements are revealed and databases are put online, as the ERR archives. New projects enable a wider diffusion of looted artworks, raising awareness among the public and why not, proceeding to new identifications.

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